‘Past Lives’ Is the Anti-‘Notebook’

We’ve romanticized stories of destiny-driven love—even at the expense of fidelity. This Oscar-nominated drama shows the beauty of limits.

Last year, I watched The Notebook for the first time. For nearly 25 years, it has epitomized Hollywood romance, with stills of Allie (Rachel McAdams) cupping Noah’s (Ryan Gosling) face as they passionately kiss in the rain serving as a pop culture shorthand for love and destiny.

The Notebook is also a story of infidelity. The story toggles between the present, where an elderly Noah comforts an Alzheimer’s-afflicted Allie, and the 1940s, where Allie cheats on and ultimately leaves her fiancé to reunite with Noah after years apart. In the modern scenes, Noah models faithfulness despite its difficulty, but in the earlier part of their timeline, Allie’s unfaithfulness is presented as the peak of romance.

The 2023 film Past Lives, which was nominated for five Golden Globes and Academy Awards including best picture, subversively shows the extent to which that impermanent perspective has permeated our thinking about life and love. Nora (Greta Lee) lies in bed with her husband Arthur (John Magaro), who is processing his feelings about an upcoming visit from his wife’s former love interest, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo):

Arthur: I was just thinking a lot about what a good story this is.

Nora: The story of Hae Sung and me?

Arthur: Yeah, I just can’t compete.

Nora: What do you mean?

Arthur: Childhood sweethearts who reconnect 20 years later only to realize they were meant for each other.

Nora: We’re not meant for each other.

Arthur: In the story I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.

“I’m the guy you’re leaving,” Arthur reiterates later, “when your ex-lover comes to take you away.”

Arthur’s confession surely echoes the inner narrative …

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